Words of shape and shade: synaesthesia in the poetry and politics of the early twentieth century

Research output: ResearchDoctoral Thesis



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Synaesthesia is a neurological condition defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body". This thesis examines the link between poetic and synaesthetic concepts, establishing the relevance of synaesthetic metaphor, sensory imagery and sound symbolism to the British and American poetry – the major English language poetics – of the early twentieth century. Although synaesthesia as a diagnosed neurological condition is not overly common, recent research in the area suggests that humans have an inherent capacity for inter-sensory association, which begins in infancy when perception is thought to be synaesthetic in nature. The idea of a universal synaesthetic capacity is certainly not implausible; synaesthetic associations are an established element in language (metaphors such as 'sharp cheese' and 'warm colour' are widely accepted) and children and adults routinely match dark colours with lower musical tones, and lighter colours with higher tones. The poetic implications of synaesthesia lie in the nexus between sensory experience and its metaphorical representation through language. The focus on image and experience in twentieth century poetics arose from the search for a language that could be used as a means to express the complexity of the modern world, and synaesthetic metaphor played an integral part in this search.

The unique nature of the social environment in the early twentieth century, with its rapid and unprecedented industrial, technological and cultural change, encouraged a greater focus on the senses and perception. The poets whose work displays evidence of these concepts were not necessarily synaesthetes themselves, nor were they always consciously or deliberately applying synaesthetic theories to their work in the manner of some nineteenth century poets. Rather, in trying to process the chaotic sensory information elicited by the introduction of new technologies, the latent synaesthetic capacity of the brain was stimulated. For poets, whose manipulation of language relies implicitly on metaphor, the implications of this synaesthetic stimulation were greater.

This study includes detailed examinations of the work of those generally considered to be the major English language poets writing in the early twentieth century, exploring their individual use of synaesthetic metaphor and inter-sensory concepts, as well as the larger patterns that emerge. It suggests that a progression emerges in the use of poetic synaesthesia which can be traced through the works of these prominent poets, regardless of poetic genre or style. This progression was characterised by a more traditional use of synaesthetic metaphor at the turn of the century which reflected nineteenth century theories of poetic synaesthesia; this can be seen in the work of W.B Yeats. It then moved to a more bodily focus in the works of Imagist poets such as Ezra Pound, H.D and Amy Lowell, where imagery was increasingly paired with tactile and gustatory synaesthetic impressions. The trend toward tactility was further strengthened during World War I when Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg used synaesthetic metaphors which emphasised the curious sensory transferences of traumatic war experience.

After World War I, the use of synaesthesia in poetry increasingly exemplified the interdisciplinarity of the period, reflecting synaesthetic ideas from music and the visual arts. Poets such as T.S Eliot, E.E Cummings, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens engaged with the movements of Impressionism, Cubism and Orphism/Synchromism, and the synaesthetic theories of F.T Marinetti and Wassily Kandinsky were similarly influential. From the 1930s, poets increasingly combined the sensory, tactile approach of the earlier Imagists with these visual and aural aesthetics; this duality can be seen in the works of W.H Auden, Theodore Roethke and Dylan Thomas. There was also an increased focus on conceptualised synaesthetic metaphors involving semantic and emotional elements, suggesting a form of ‘ideasthesia’. From the mid-century on, the poetic inheritances left by earlier poets could be seen in the continuation of many of the dominant synaesthetic tropes by poets such as Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.

This study aims to highlight the implicit relationship between synaesthesia and poetry and poetics, particularly through metaphor. It will show how synaesthetic metaphor was integral to the poetry of the early twentieth century, and how it can be used to provide an alternative basis for critical discussion of some of the most prominent poets of the period. The presence of synaesthesia in the poetry of this period was wide-ranging, pervasive and evident in the works of all the major poets writing at the time, and this thesis will offer a potential explanation for this hitherto unexplored and unexplained phenomenon.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
StateUnpublished - 2012

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